Today was a complete waste of time, mainly because I am not, as it turns out, a gifted genealogist. Mum and I took the train to Belfast, clutching our notes of names and dates, to visit the PRONI. While it was certainly quite fun to get our photos taken and be issued important-looking visitor passes to wear around our necks, the rest of the experience proved to be very disappointing.
Maybe I’ve been watching too much Who Do You Think You Are?, because I had quite excited expectations of finding out all sorts of interesting things about my ancestors, and tracing the family back to the days when they were living in caves or suchlike. There were rooms full of catalogues, microfilms, books, documents, computerised records, files… all that we needed was surely there! Unfortunately, we didn’t have a clue how to find any of it.
It was something like how I imagine I might feel if thrown into a room filled entirely – from floor to ceiling to wall to wall – with millions of M&Ms, having been instructed to find the six special gold ones that had been mixed in amongst all the worthless ones. Certainly, they’d be there, somewhere… but knowing where to start looking would be another matter altogether. Never mind coming up with some sort of system for the search. Plus you’d start getting covered in melting chocolate before you’d even sifted through your first hundred.
I did not get covered in chocolate at the PRONI, sadly, but I did feel completely overwhelmed. The website (which I had studied carefully before leaving, being quite conscientious like that) says that once you arrive and get signed in, a member of staff will meet briefly with you “to discuss your research needs. They will help you to get started, showing you how to use the catalogues, guides, indexes and leaflets, and how to order a document”. This was the part that had given me the confidence to go, because once I’m shown how to do something, I pick it up very quickly and can be surprisingly efficient. If I’m not shown, and am expected to figure it out for myself, I either need (a) a lot of time, and complete solitude in order to get my head around it, or (b) to give up , sulk, and run away.
Alas! My expectations that the staff would do, well, the things they’d said on their website that they’d do, were not met. The brief meeting with the member of staff was, in actual fact, us going up to a man at a desk in the corner and asking for help. The help to get started was him pointing us to a folder entitled “Catalogue of Church Records” and going back to his desk. The showing us “how to use the catalogues, guides, indexes and leaflets, and how to order a document” was therefore somewhat more minimal than I would have hoped.
We tried getting reference numbers from catalogues and then going to the microfilm room, but when we asked for help there, the (very nice) woman just gave us a couple of random books of Sunday School records and sent us on our way. We looked through the books, not exactly sure what we were meant to be looking for. We returned the books. We went to the computers and tried searching the records there, but again, had no real idea how to do it or where to start or what we were looking at. I asked for help again, and the girl who responded was really very very nice indeed – I feel the need to put this in as I’m sounding a bit harsh, and this girl couldn’t have been more pleasant – but, like the others, spoke to me as if I had been working there for as long as she had, and knew what all the records were, how to search them, what the reference numbers corresponded to, how to find the folders and files they corresponded to, how to order a document to read…
I did not know any of these things. I tried to ask as many questions as possible, and yet was again left with the utter frustration that I tend to feel when I know that I’m intelligent enough to be able to quickly understand something and make use of it, but can’t because the most basic parts of it haven’t been explained.
I know these people are busy, and that it’s free to go in there and use the service all day every day if you want. But I didn’t expect a personal assistant! All I wanted was the 5 minutes I’d expected to get at the start, where someone would just talk me through the whys and hows, and tell me what the various sections of shelves and files contained. That way, I could’ve gotten stuck in and made use of the resources quite independently, rather than faffing about for two hours and then giving up in frustration.
At which point, incidentally, it started lashing out of the heavens, and by the time we’d walked down Balmoral Avenue to the station (and accidentally walked past it once) I was completely drenched to the point of having to dry my dripping hair under a waist-high, downward-pointing-only hand dryer in the toilets of Great Victoria Street station.
I think I want chocolate.